How Dangerous Was the Ohio Chemical Train Derailment?

By: Andrew J. Whelton  | 
Norfolk Southern freight train cars derailed
This video screenshot released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) shows some of the 50 Norfolk Southern derailed freight cars in East Palestine, Ohio. Ten of the derailed cars were carrying hazardous materials, according to the NTSB. Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

People with headaches and lingering chemical smells from a fiery train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, have left residents worried about their air and water — and misinformation on social media hasn't helped.

State officials offered more details of the cleanup process and a timeline of the environmental disaster during a news conference Feb. 14, 2023. Nearly a dozen cars carrying chemicals, including vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, derailed on the evening of Feb. 3, and fire from the site sent up acrid black smoke. Officials said they had tested more than 400 nearby homes for contamination and were tracking a plume of spilled chemicals that had killed 3,500 fish in streams and the Ohio River.


However, the slow release of information after the derailment has left many questions unanswered about the risks and longer-term impact. We asked Andrew Whelton, an environmental engineer who investigates chemical risks during disasters, questions about the chemical release. Here's what he had to say.

What do we know about the chemicals on the train, and what concerns you the most?

The main concern now is the contamination of homes, soil and water, primarily from volatile organic compounds and semivolatile organic compounds, known as VOCs and SVOCs.

The train had nearly a dozen cars with vinyl chloride and other materials, such as ethylhexyl acrylate and butyl acrylate. These chemicals have varying levels of toxicity and different fates in soil and groundwater. Officials have detected some of those chemicals in the nearby waterway and particulate matter in the air from the fire. But so far, the fate of many of the chemicals is not known. A variety of other materials was also released, but discussion about those chemicals has been limited.


State officials disclosed that a plume of contamination released into the nearby creek had made its way into the Ohio River. Other cities get their drinking water from the river and were warned about the risk. The farther this plume moves downstream, the less concentrated the chemical will be in water, posing less of a risk.

In the long term, the greatest risk is to areas closest to the derailment location. And again, there's limited information about what chemicals are present — or were created through chemical reactions during the fire.

It isn't clear yet how much went into storm drains, was flushed down the streams or may have settled to the bottom of waterways.

There was also a lot of combusted particulate matter. The black smoke is a clear indication. It's unclear how much was diluted in the air or fell to the ground.


How long can these chemicals linger in soil and water?

The heavier the chemical, often the slower it degrades and the more likely it is to stick to soil. These compounds can remain for years if left unaddressed.

After the Kalamazoo River oil pipeline break in Michigan in 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency excavated a tributary where the oil settled. We've also seen from oil spills on the coasts of Alaska and Alabama that oil chemicals can find their way into soil if they aren't remediated.


The long-term impact in Ohio will depend in part on how quickly — and thoroughly — cleanup occurs.

booms in Sulphur Creek
Crews work to place booms along Sulphur Creek where chemicals from the Norfolk Southern train derailment were detected in East Palestine, Ohio.
The Washington Post via Getty Images

If the heavily contaminated soils and liquids are excavated and removed, the long-term impacts can be reduced. But the longer removal takes, the farther the contamination can spread. It's in everyone's best interest to clean this up as soon as possible and before the region gets rain.

Booms in a nearby stream have been deployed to capture chemicals. Air-stripping devices have been deployed to remove chemicals from the waterways. Air stripping causes the light chemicals to leave the water and enter air. This is a common treatment technique and was used after a 2015 oil spill in the Yellowstone River near Glendive, Montana.

At the derailment site in Ohio, workers are already removing contaminated soil as deep as 7 feet (2 meters) near where the rail cars burned.


What does the thick, black smoke suggest about the chemicals set on fire?

Incineration is one way we dispose of hazardous chemicals, but incomplete chemical destruction creates a host of byproducts. Chemicals can be destroyed when heated to extremely high temperatures so they burn thoroughly.

The black smoke plume you saw on TV suggests incomplete combustion. A number of other chemicals were created. Officials don't necessarily know what these were or where they went until they test for them.


We know ash can pose health risks, which is why we test inside homes after wildfires where structures burn. This is one reason the state's health director told residents with private wells near and downwind of the derailment to use bottled water until they can have their wells tested.

mushroom cloud over East Palestine, Ohio
Thick, black smoke in the shape of a mushroom cloud filled the air after authorities performed what they said was a controlled release of chemicals following the massive train derailment.
Orlowski Designs LLC/Shutterstock


How do these chemicals get inside, and what happens to them in enclosed spaces?

Homes are not airtight, and sometimes dust and other materials get in. It might be through an open door or a windowsill. Sometimes people track it in.

So far, the U.S. EPA has reported no evidence of high levels of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride in the 400 or so homes tested. But full transparency has been lacking. Just because an agency is doing testing doesn't mean it is testing for what it needs to test for.


Media reports talk about four or five chemicals, but the train manifest from Norfolk Southern also listed a bunch of other materials in tanks that burned. All those materials create potentially hundreds to thousands of VOCs and SVOCs.

Are government officials testing for everything they should?

People in the community have reported headaches, which can be caused by VOCs and other chemicals. Residents are understandably concerned.

Ohio and federal officials need to better communicate what they're doing, why and what they plan to do. It's unclear what questions they are trying to answer. For a disaster this serious, there has been little testing information shared.


In the absence of this transparency, misinformation is filling that void. From a homeowner's perspective, it's hard to understand the true risk if the data is not shared.

Andrew J. Whelton is a professor of civil, environmental and ecological engineering, as well as the director of the Healthy Plumbing Consortium and Center for Plumbing Safety at Purdue University. He receives funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, the Water Research Foundation and Purdue University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. You can find the original article here.